Almost 27 years ago, I was called to my first charge as Minister to a Church in Longtown, South Carolina. Longtown was and remains a sign on Longtown road, announcing “Longtown,” Longtown Presbyterian Church, a small restaurant (the Windmill), a gas station-mom & pop convenience store, and a children’s park. That is the town of Longtown. It was and is so small that they don’t even give it a zip code, instead sharing a zip code with the metropolis of Ridgeway (population — 500) up the road. I served as the Pastor of the small rural Longtown Presbyterian church for 76 months.
The membership of the church was small and so there was little problem in getting to know those I would be serving. One of the fixtures of the congregation was Mrs. Ethel Smith. Miss Ethel, as my children came to affectionately know her, was a grandmotherly type for not only our children but for Jane and I as well.
Miss Ethel was 63 when we showed up in Longtown and had seen a good deal of life already. She grew up a Boulware in South Carolina during times that were so lean that “hardscrabble” hardly seems to do those times justice. The hardness of those times and the simplicity of living they required was testified to by Miss Ethel’s residence. Ethel had the gift of hospitality and many were the times we would visit together in what most moderns would consider “a hovel” but what she found to be home and I found to be a glorious museum of a time I had only read about. In our visits, there by the old stove, she would bring out her knick knacks that reflected a different era and tell me a little of the history behind each knick knack. There in our times of mutual encouragement — times where I’m sure I learned more from her concerning the Christian faith than she learned from “Pastor Bret,” — she would show me her artistic endeavors with her ceramic doll making and adorning. Miss Ethel had artistic blood in her as seen by those ceramic dolls, sewing projects, crocheting ability and by the hand puppets she made upon my request to be used for children’s church — hand puppets that I still own today. Her concern was so great for us that after we left Longtown she crocheted several afghans to make sure the cold northern climate wouldn’t overwhelm us.
Miss Ethel, of course, had all the domestic skills and abilities that one would expect to find in a lady from the Southern yeoman class. She could cook “Southern” with the best of them and was one of the folks of Longtown who introduced Jane and I and the children to scrambled eggs, tomatoes and grits, as prepared for our Sunday Morning Breakfasts, which took place once a month in the fellowship hall prior to church. Those domestic skills including canning. Jane tells the story of how Ethel and her sister Allie May would come over and help Jane can tomatoes from a garden that violated the Southern principle that “a man shall not plant more than a woman is able to can.” Ethel, along with her sister Allie May would periodically babysit for Jane and I as we would get away for a “date night.” She loved our children and our children loved her.
The hardscrabble times that Miss. Ethel grew up in wrought in her a wonderful Christian character marked by charity and humility. Her charity and humility were seen in a host of way but not least in her “doing” for her family. One of Ethel’s daughters (Francis) lived right across the street and as Francis was a teacher up the road Ethel would help keep house for Francis and John David. Ethel’s disabled brother M. L. lived in a trailer on Ethel’s property and Ethel was constant in looking in on and doing for M. L. him. Ethel’s sister “Allie May,” were constant companions and her affection for Francis, Lois, Susie, Ginger, Summer, and April and all her family was constant.
Miss Ethel, had not only a joyful disposition, she had the ability to be painfully direct in her speech when needs be. In conversing about matters important one was not required to have to read between the lines when speaking with Miss Ethel. She had no trouble making her mind known when that was required. This “plain speaking” was not overbearing but was characteristic when the nub of the matter needed addressed.
Miss Ethel delighted in attending Church and Bible study during our years in Longtown. Being the only one who could drive, she would often gather up Miss Allie May and Miss Nellie and Miss Rachel Gove from up the road and bring them to mid-week study. She had the ability to make a very young minister believe that he really was dispensing pearls of wisdom. I can still hear Buster pounding out “Beulah Land” on the piano in the Fellowship Hall and Miss Ethel singing at full voice. I can’t wait to hear that again.
I often describe the Longtown years to others as years of living in a land time forgot. The people of Longtown were comparatively untouched by what afflicts us as moderns. It remained a place where one could still hear a real southern accent, could experience genuine southern hospitality, could still attend a Southern turkey shoot or a pig roast or a community pig butchering. You could still meet people that actually still ate Possum and who would take you on a all night coon hunt. My elderly friends and flock from that time are almost all gone now. Gone are Miss Ethel, Miss Allie May, Miss Nellie, Miss Mary, Miss Janie May, Miss Betty, Miss Louise, Miss Rachel and Ted & Janet Goodwin and Ralph and Jean Evans and Hoy and Dot Bundrick. Gone is Mister Buster and Mister Fisher. They taught me about the ministry and about life. They were the ones who first put flesh on the idea of the importance of kin with their forever talking about “their people” and asking me about “my people” — phrases I had never heard before that time. They taught me the helpful but then curious phrase of “I’ve been knowing him” instead of “I know him.” A phrase I’ve used many times as a sermon illustration for “knowing God.” Gone is the gloriously high pitched laughter of Miss Ethel and the sound elderly counsel of Buster and Hoy. Gone is the table fellowship with the McFaddens and Miss Mary and the Bundricks and Miss Louise. Each of them and all of them will ever remain my small rural “Jayber Crow” congregation.
And so with Miss Ethel’s death the circle is once again broken but we are reminded of a day coming when we will all join at the table of the great King where the circle will then be unbroken in that eternal land that time will have mercifully eternally forgotten.